Can Meditation Calm Your Anxious Child?
Studies in schools suggest it eases anxiety and even boosts test scores
Your child may be suffering more stress and anxiety than you realize. An American Psychological Association survey found that only 3 percent of parents viewed their kids’ stress as extreme, yet research shows one in four teens suffers from an anxiety disorder.
Meditation could be part of the solution, say researchers.
A study of second and third graders who meditated and did mindfulness exercises for 30 minutes twice a week for four to eight weeks found their behavior improved and they scored better on tests compared to kids who didn't meditate.
Another study of students in the San Francisco Unified School District found a big improvement in math scores, emotional health and overall academic performance among students who practiced transcendental meditation.
“Our attendance is trending up significantly…We used to have one of the highest suspension rates; now we have one of the lowest among all middle schools,” said James Dierke, former principal of the city’s low-income Visitacion Valley Middle School to educators at a 2012 conference. “Our kids are more motivated, more confident, more focused, more successful and more joyful.”
The power of quiet
One of the people behind the San Francisco initiative is Jeff Rice, a tech executive who left Silicon Valley to help create Quiet Time, the meditation program launched at Visitacion Valley Middle School and run by the non-profit Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education.
Quiet Time brought meditation programs to some of the worst-performing public schools in San Francisco. In the program’s first year, the number of suspensions fell by 45 percent and attendance rose to an unprecedented 98 percent.
"In terms of performance, we've seen some of the biggest effects with African American students,” says Rice. “They generally perform 10 to 20 percent below white and Asian students, and we call this the performance gap. In our San Francisco schools, we found that school meditation began to close that gap. Although schoolwide GPA's went up, African American student GPA's rose almost twice as rapidly as the school average."
How can a few minutes of meditation do so much for children? According to Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of “The Mindful Child,” it’s by helping children observe and pay more attention to their own thoughts. By showing them how to identify reactions such as anger, Greenland says, they can feel and observe a negative emotion without being consumed by it.
In the process, kids also become more compassionate, Greenland says. "We teach them that they are not their thoughts,” she says. “They can learn to separate themselves from that anger."
Related: 5 Alternatives to Meditation
How to try it with your child
Most schools don’t offer meditation programs, but you can find kids’ meditation classes elsewhere and even teach your child how to meditate yourself.
If you take yoga or meditation classes, ask the teacher for ideas on meditating with kids. Coaxing young children to meditate is easy if you make it fun, says Greenland. Also try exploring online resources and books like “Calm Kids,” which include tips for teaching meditation, and model how to deal with stress calmly.
Once your youngster is interested, Mindful Schools co-founder Megan Cowan suggests that you take these steps:
- Plan a time where you can spend a few minutes together every day.
- Create a quiet environment.
- Encourage your child to relax and let his body become still and quiet.
- Invite your child to close his eyes if he feels like it.
- "Ring a bell and have him listen to the entire sound from beginning to end, raising his hand when the sound has faded completely (alternatively, you can both simply listen to the sounds around you for a minute or so)."
- Ask your child to bring both hands to his lap or belly.
- "Take a few breaths together, guiding your child by saying “breathing in, breathing out,” then allow some time for him to do this silently."
- Start with 1 minute and build up to 3 minutes or more, depending on your child's response.
Some experts recommend one minute of meditation for each year of age.
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Experiment with other techniques
Your child might also benefit from these approaches.
Belly breathing. Small children will enjoy watching their bellies as they breathe in and out, according to Bess O’Conner, a healing arts therapist at the Chopra Center. (If your child is anxious, you can encourage him to hum or make "nifty noises" such as a bee buzzing as he breathes in and out, advise experts at the Anxiety-Free Child Program.)
A toy “breathing buddy.” When psychologist and meditation expert Elisha Goldstein's son was four years old, he and his wife taught him meditative breathing with a stuffed animal. "We had him lie down and breathe with his stuffy on his stomach, and we called the toy his 'breathing buddy.' What really surprised us was getting calls from parents, saying that our son had taught their kid how to use a breathing buddy, and everyone was doing it.”
A “friendly wishes” meditation. In this meditation, your child closes her eyes and wishes happiness to people she loves (Example: “I wish happiness for my mom”). Later your child can add things that are bothering her (“I wish I felt calmer about X.”)
“Straw breathing.” Take a leaf from Palo Alto engineer and mother Anjali Vishwana, who taught “straw breathing,” to students at local Gunn High School. It consists of taking a deep breath through your nose and then pretending you are exhaling through a straw between your lips.
Although students were initially dismissive, many were “amazed, like, wow, that actually worked,” Gunn’s sophomore student president told a local weekly. “Just 20 seconds of breathing differently can make a huge impact.”